From working collections to the World Germplasm Project: agricultural modernization and genetic conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation
From working collections to the World Germplasm Project: agricultural modernization and genetic conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation
Helen Anne Curry 0
0 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane , Cambridge CB2 3RH , UK
This paper charts the history of the Rockefeller Foundation's participation in the collection and long-term preservation of genetic diversity in crop plants from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the decades following the launch of its agricultural program in Mexico in 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation figured prominently in the creation of world collections of key economic crops. Through the efforts of its administrators and staff, the foundation subsequently parlayed this experience into a leadership role in international efforts to conserve so-called plant genetic resources. Previous accounts of the Rockefeller Foundation's interventions in international agricultural development have focused on the outcomes prioritized by foundation staff and administrators as they launched assistance programs and especially their characterization of the peoples and ''problems'' they encountered abroad. This paper highlights instead how foundation administrators and staff responded to a newly emergent international agricultural concern-the loss of crop genetic diversity. Charting the foundation's responses to this concern, which developed only after agricultural modernization had begun and was understood to be produced by the successes of the foundation's own agricultural assistance programs, allows for greater interrogation of how the foundation understood and projected its central position in international agricultural research activities by the 1970s.
Rockefeller Foundation; Seed banks; Crop diversity; Plant genetic resources; Green Revolution; Agricultural modernization
In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a program in Mexico that aimed to
increase agricultural production through greater research and training in the
agricultural sciences. Many scholars have looked to this effort as the starting point
of the so-called Green Revolution—that is, of the striking increase seen in the
production of certain economic crops in Latin America and Asia in the late 1950s
and 1960s that resulted especially from the introduction of higher-yielding crop
varieties and the agricultural technologies and financial structures needed to
cultivate these (Jennings 1988; Perkins 1997; Cotter 2003; Harwood 2009, 2012;
Cullather 2010; Patel 2013). In establishing this narrative, historians have traced the
foundation’s efforts from Mexico across Latin America in the 1940s and 50s, to
India, Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia in the 1960s and 70s, and finally to Africa
where these faltered in the 1980s and later (Oasa 1981; Fitzgerald 1986; Matchett
2002, 2006; Cullather 2004; Shepherd 2005; Smith 2009; Baranski 2015). The
outcomes of these activities remain contested, hailed by some as having prevented
global food crises and decried by others as the source of innumerable social and
Much of the historical literature that has evaluated the agricultural assistance
programs of the Rockefeller Foundation from the 1940s onward has focused on the
outcomes that were vigorously pursued from the outset. These include especially the
creation and dissemination of high-yielding varieties of key economic crops and the
broad political agendas, such as transforming potentially volatile peasants into
cooperative capitalist farmers, that were encoded in seemingly narrow breeding
efforts. Some of these studies have explored how the prior experiences and
assumptions of foundation officers and staff affected what they defined as problems
worthy of attention in the countries they visited as well as the solutions they
proposed (e.g., Fitzgerald 1986; Shepherd 2005; Smith 2009; Nally and Taylor
2015). The perspectives of foundation officers about the need for agricultural
assistance and the form it should take were not developed in isolation but reflected
contemporary theories of economic development and were bound closely to US
geopolitical concerns and strategies for national security in the midst of the Cold
War; these, too, have been consistent themes in studies of the Rockefeller
Foundation’s agricultural programs (e.g., Oasa 1981; Perkins 1997; Cullather 2010).
Although it complements these many studies, the history that I relate here differs
in its approach to understanding the post-1940 agricultural programming of the
Rockefeller Foundation and its wide-ranging effects. I explore a component of the
foundation’s interventions in global agriculture—its participation in the collection
and long-term preservation of genetic diversity in agricultural plants—that was not
prompted by the perceived shortcomings of developing-world agriculturists or
governments but instead arose as a means of managing some less desirable
consequences of the foundation’s own activities. As I describe here, in the decades
following the launch of the agricultural program in Mexico in 1943, the Rockefeller
1 See Patel (2013) for an insightful assessment of the long history of the Green Revolution and competing
claims made about its successes and failures.
Foundation figured prominently in the creation of collections in which many
thousands of varieties of important economic crops were gathered. I show how,
through the efforts of its administrators and staff, the foundation subsequently
parlayed this experience into a leadership role in international efforts to conserve
‘‘plant genetic resources’’ as these coalesced in the late 1960s.
These activities have had long-term—indeed, continuing—consequences for
international agricultural research and development. The institutions favored by the
Rockefeller Foundation as centers of collection and conservation, whose histories I
recount here, still play central roles in the management and global circulation of plant
genetic materials, especially for key economic crops such as rice, maize and wheat.2
The history of the Rockefeller Foundation’s involvement in the collection and
long-term maintenance of crop genetic diversity aligns with the existing scholarship
in showing the influence of the foundation’s resources and vision on crucial
elements of agricultural production at local and global scales. Yet because of the
particular nature of the problem of the loss of genetically diverse types, exploring
this history allows for greater interrogation of how the foundation (as embodied in
its staff) came to understand and position itself as an undisputed authority in
international agricultural research. This is because the loss of genetically diverse
types became an urgent international concern only after agricultural modernization
had begun, and was in fact understood to be produced by the very successes of the
foundation’s agricultural programs. Here the problem to be solved could not be
explained by reference to the failures of backwards farming communities or
addressed by imposing an imported vision of good agriculture. It was acknowledged
to be a product of the foundation’s own activities. What’s more, it invited the
interest of other organizations, who found themselves engaged in resolving an issue
seen to be exacerbated by agricultural modernization as pursued by the Rockefeller
Foundation. As a result, this history offers an opportunity to consider how the
foundation viewed its authority in the domain of global agriculture vis-a`-vis that of
other national and international actors.
2 Mexican maize diversity
The Rockefeller Foundation’s first forays into the collection of crop plant diversity
in the 1940s were intended not as conservation activities but rather as the initial
steps towards specific agricultural objectives: the creation and distribution of
higher-yielding crop plants for Mexican farmers. Within a few short years, however,
concerns about the potential loss of the diverse types of maize (corn) found in
Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America transformed a working collection—that is,
one used for the immediate research needs of breeders and other scientists on site—
into a resource to be expanded and stewarded for the future.
In October 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation entered into an agreement with the
Mexican government in which it agreed to provide Mexico with technical expertise
2 On international efforts to conserve plant genetic resources, see Pistorius (1997) and Pistorius & Van
Wijk (1999). Further studies include Saraiva (2013), Peres (2016), and Fenzi & Bonneuil (2016).
in agricultural research, with the aim of improving national agricultural
productivity, via a new American-staffed Office of Special Studies in the Ministry of
Agriculture. It followed that a top priority for this office was to establish programs
in plant breeding, as the development of high-yielding varieties of important
economic and subsistence crops like maize, wheat, and beans promised a
straightforward route to increased agricultural production.3
One of the first activities to be undertaken in the maize-breeding program, which
was directed by the American geneticist and breeder Edwin Wellhausen, was to
establish a collection of locally adapted Mexican maize varieties (today called
landraces). The stated purpose of collecting was to support the maize improvement
efforts; however, it was further encouraged by more academic interests. As a
consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Harvard botanist and maize breeder Paul
Mangelsdorf had been instrumental first in shaping the Mexican program, then in
launching the Office of Special Studies and setting an agenda for its maize program
(Matchett 2002). He had also been engaged in the study of maize’s evolutionary
origins for a number of years, work in which he relied on varieties gathered from across
the Americas. His passion for both breeding and evolutionary studies influenced
subsequent ambitions for and uses of the collection (Mangelsdorf 1974).
Foundation staff made the first collections of maize while driving across the
Mexican countryside. According to Wellhausen, they gathered many varieties,
‘‘right along the road, as we went from one place to another.’’4 Over time, the
collecting activities became more methodical. Wellhausen was soon dispatching
students from the nearby university to gather maize from all corners of the country.
They were provided with ‘‘bags and tags and money to travel’’ and relied on buses
and sometimes burros to travel to what Wellhausen called ‘‘the hinterlands.’’5 Once
they had arrived at remote sites, collectors often faced a still more difficult task.
Collecting diverse types of maize frequently meant negotiating with impoverished
farmers for access to a precious resource.6
The collectors’ persistence paid off. In 1943, when the collections had only just
begun, Wellhausen reported the ‘‘very large number’’ of more than 200 maize types
held by the Office of Special Studies.7 By 1947 the collection included some ‘‘1500
varieties of corn’’ and Wellhausen and his colleagues, encouraged by Mangelsdorf,
had begun an effort to classify these and definitively establish their relationships to
3 The earliest account of the Mexican project is Stakman et al. (1967). Subsequent scholarly accounts
include Fitzgerald (1986), Jennings (1988), Cotter (2003), Matchett (2002, 2006) and Harwood (2009).
For a comparison to other Mexican agricultural breeding programs of that period, see Barahona (2008).
4 Edwin Wellhausen, Oral History, Rockefeller Foundation Program in Agriculture, Volume XLII, June
1966, Rockefeller Archive Center, Rockefeller Foundation records (RF) RG 13, quotation on 29.
5 Ibid., 133.
6 For an account by one of the key collectors, see Herna´ndez X. (1998).
7 ‘‘Annual Report, Rockefeller Agricultural Program in Mexico, February 1—December 31 Incl. 1943,’’
RF RG 6.13, Series 1.1, Box 2, Folder 21.
8 ‘‘Review of the work of the Oficina de Estudios Especiales, S.A.G. for the year 1946–1947,’’ RF RG
6.13, Series 1.1, Box 2, Folder 2.
Almost from the outset those associated with the Office of Special Studies
recognized that their maize-breeding program, if it were successful, would produce
more desirable strains of maize that might well replace the many diverse types they
now encountered in Mexican fields. This loss would be a blow to breeding efforts
and botanical studies alike. When Wellhausen and his colleagues published the
results of their classificatory effort, they both acknowledged this concern and
assigned themselves a central role in addressing it: ‘‘The modern corn breeder… has
a responsibility not only to improve the maize in the country in which he works, but
also to recognize, to describe, and to preserve for future use, the varieties and races
which his own improved productions tend to replace and in some cases to
extinguish’’ (Wellhausen et al. 1952, foreword).
As it turned out, this notion was more widely shared. In 1949 the German
geneticist Friedrich Brieger of the Universidade de Sa˜o Paulo voiced his concern
over the likely disappearance of maize varieties across the Americas to the botanist
Ralph Cleland, who was then the chairman of the Division of Biology and
Agriculture of the US National Research Council (NRC).9 Brieger’s dire predictions
of varieties being lost within ten years inspired Cleland to assess interest in a
conservation effort among his colleagues and potential funders. Within a couple of
years, a small group of US scientists had formed a ‘‘Committee on the Preservation
of Indigenous Strains of Maize’’ (hereafter, Maize Committee) under the auspices of
the NRC (Clark 1956; Curry 2017). Its initial members included a number of
botanists and geneticists, including Mangelsdorf, whose research had already
sparked their interest in maize diversity. Convinced of the likely loss of diverse—
and valuable—maize varieties resulting from the introduction of improved lines,
members of the Maize Committee obtained a grant from the US Technical
Cooperation Administration (TCA) to finance a hemispheric effort to collect and
preserve these imperiled varieties. Their arguments for why an agency concerned
with offering ‘‘technical assistance’’ to developing countries should support their
work emphasized the essential role that the endangered varieties would play in
future maize-improvement efforts across Latin America; however, they also called
attention to the benefits to US agriculture and to scientific research.10
The Maize Committee, relying especially on Mangelsdorf as an intermediary,
also sought to secure the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation on the ground in Latin
America. J. George Harrar, the director of the program in Mexico, and his
colleagues clearly saw the value of the Maize Committee’s work for their future
activities. As Harrar argued to the foundation president Chester Bernard, ‘‘The
importance of maintaining viable germplasm of native crop plants such as corn is
obvious and of tremendous significance in the development of new varieties of corn
to meet future problems.’’11 He pointed out that the foundation had been doing this
work for years, spending considerable sums in the creation of a maize collection in
Mexico and, more recently, in Colombia where a second Latin American program
had been launched in 1950. They were, in his assessment, in possession of
unparalleled resources: ‘‘If we accept the proposal of the NRC committee we will
immediately make available to them the most important maize material now in
existence.’’12 Bernard agreed with Harrar, but expressed reservations that the
committee had not adequately considered the question of maintaining these varieties
in the long-term. He worried that this expensive commitment would devolve to the
foundation and insisted that the foundation not commit itself to providing for the
indefinite maintenance of the collected maize.13
On that understanding, the Rockefeller Foundation signed on to the Maize
Committee’s planned program. Over the next few years, the foundation supervised
collecting missions and provided land and space for multiplying and renewing
collected seeds. The NRC, using the $85,000 grant from the TCA, paid for
equipment, supplies, travel expenses, and salaries associated with collecting. TCA
funds also supported the creation of three storage centers to house the collections—
located in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil—with additional ‘‘stand-by’’ storage at a
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) site in Maryland. Both the Mexican and
Colombian centers were linked to Rockefeller Foundation operations. The Mexican
storage facility was at Chapingo, the field site of the Office of Special Studies and
home to Wellhausen’s earlier maize collections, while the Colombian storage
facility was sited at the new Rockefeller Foundation outpost in Medell´ın.14
The Maize Committee quickly achieved its goal of amassing seeds of diverse
types. By 1955, the committee claimed a total of 11,353 samples of maize from
across the Americas, 10,922 of which had been officially catalogued and many
thousands of which were duplicated in stand-by storage.15
This success created new problems, as the question of long-term maintenance
and renewal of these collections in Latin America lingered. Although the Maize
Committee had hoped to establish an endowment to support the storage centers in
perpetuity, no donor materialized. In a heated exchange of 1953, foundation staff
including Harrar took great offense at the Maize Committee’s (to their minds)
cavalier assumption, outlined in a further grant proposal, that the foundation would
go on maintaining and distributing the collected maize varieties at its own
expense.16 Yet this is what eventually happened.
12 Harrar to Barnard, 15 October 1951, RF RG 1.2, Series 300, Box 1, Folder 2.
13 Barnard to Harrar, 17 September 1951, RF RG 1.2, Series 300, Box 1, Folder 2.
14 Minutes of Meeting of Committee on Preservation of Indigenous Strains of Maize, 26 October 1951,
National Academy of Sciences, Biology & Agricultural Division Files (B&A), Folder: B & A
Agricultural Board Com on Preservation of Maize: Meetings, 1951–1958.
15 Committee on Preservation of Indigenous Strains of Maize, (1955), ‘‘Collections of Original Strains of
Corn, II,’’ B&A, Folder: B & A Agricultural Board Com on Preservation of Maize: Collections of
Original Strains of Corn: II.
16 E.g., Harrar to Clark, 5 November 1953, RF RG 1.2, Series 300, Box 1, Folder 4; Harrar diary, 16
November 1953, RF RG 1.2, Series 300, Box 1, Folder 4.
3 New crops, new collections, new concerns
During the 1960s Rockefeller Foundation staff continued to emphasize the
importance of collections of crop diversity to the success of crop improvement
programs, and increasingly saw a clear role for the foundation in maintaining these
collections. This was due in part to the foundation’s sponsorship of a greater number
of agricultural initiatives. As it expanded its horizons from Mexico and Colombia to
all of Latin America and then to South and Southeast Asia and beyond, the
foundation generated a need for access to more and different crops. Perhaps more
important, as staff members from the flagship Mexico program fanned out to these
new sites, they brought with them a sense of the important role that the collection of
diverse varieties had played in the successes of the Mexican program—and they
endeavored to repeat that experience.
In 1956, in the midst of the maize collecting efforts in Latin America, the
Rockefeller Foundation entered into an agreement with the Government of India to
create a cooperative research program at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in
New Delhi. As the program got off the ground in 1957 and 1958, a maize-breeding
initiative was the first to be established, followed shortly by an effort to improve
sorghum and millets (Perkins 1997, pp. 153–154). Kenneth Rachie, formerly of the
Office of Special Studies in Mexico, led the latter project. He immediately proposed
collecting sorghum varieties just as ‘‘extensive collections of corn germ plasm’’ had
been made in Latin America. ‘‘It is quite obvious that such collections played an
important part in excellent development of maize improvement programs in Mexico
and Colombia,’’ he noted. Although Rachie envisioned that Indian materials would be
the starting point for the collections, he hoped that ‘‘introductions from other countries
would be added … and eventually a world sorghum bank would be established.’’17
Rachie considered this to be in the known remit of the foundation: ‘‘Establishment of
world germplasm banks has been an important function of the Rockefeller Foundation
agricultural programs in the past.’’18 Rachie soon organized an India-wide collecting
program in which Indian collectors sought out locally adapted varieties of sorghum,
maize, and millets. He further supplemented the collection with materials from other
institutions, as well as a sorghum collection that he had brought with him from Mexico,
to create his envisioned ‘‘world collection’’ (House 1980, p. 98).
A similar tale unfolded beginning in 1960 at a different Rockefeller-linked
institution, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
Jointly funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and directed initially by a
former staff member of the Office of Special Studies, IRRI’s mission was to raise
rice production across Asia through enhanced scientific research and training. As
with the program in Mexico, breeding high-yielding varieties took center stage.
And, as with the earlier maize and sorghum efforts, rice breeding began with an
effort to assemble at IRRI as many rice varieties as possible. Because many
agricultural institutions already possessed large collections of rice varieties, the
primary method of collecting was to write to these institutions to see whether they
would share their materials. By the end of 1972, the collection included nearly 7000
accessions, and had benefited from the donation of extensive materials from the
USDA, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Japan, and Taiwan
(Chandler 1992, pp. 103–104).
The brief overviews of the collecting programs offered here—especially of maize
in the Americas and sorghum, maize, and millets in India—give little sense of the
labor and resources required to assemble and maintain a collection of diverse crop
varieties, even for a circumscribed region. To gather the sorghum, maize, and millet
varieties of India, Rachie relied on seven lead field collectors from India. Prior to
visiting any area Rachie and his collaborators had to gather information about the
nature and location of crops likely to be found there, as well as the predicted time of
harvest; they also had to contact local agricultural officials and receive permission,
and in many cases assistance, to carry out the work of collecting. Taking a sample
involved gathering the seeds, wrapping these in cloth and bagging them, completing
a standardized data form in duplicate, packing the bags into further metal containers
or burlap bags, and sending these back to New Delhi. As Rachie summarized,
‘‘Field collecting was found to be hard, exhausting work.’’ The collectors
nonetheless accumulated 2463 samples of sorghum, 1582 of maize, and 2165 of
varied millets—having spent a collective 674 days in the field and an additional
116 days planning the missions and having traveled an estimated 79,118 miles
while in the field.19
Collecting was indeed hard, exhausting work. But, in many respects,
maintenance proved harder still. It was only after seeds arrived at a storage facility that the
never-ending tasks of maintenance began—processing seeds for storage, classifying
the accessions, developing a system for tracking these and storing data, growing out
seeds to regenerate stocks, making samples available to breeders worldwide and so
on. An illustration of just how difficult maintenance proved is the history of the
Latin American maize collection in the mid 1960s. This collection had been
shepherded by the Rockefeller Foundation from the days of the Maize Committee
through the closing of the Office of Special Studies in 1959 and then the
inauguration of a new Inter-American Maize Improvement Program the same year.
As institutional histories proudly note, the collection held by this latter program
became the core material for the ‘‘genebank’’ of a new International Center for the
Improvement of Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT) established in 1966 under an
agreement between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Government (Taba
et al. 2004). But what was the collection like at that time? As Mario Gutie´rrez, the
scientist hired to curate the CIMMYT genebank, later described, ‘‘What CIMMYT
had in 1967 could not be classified as a bank but merely as a dump.’’ Seeds
produced for the bank sat idly in tin cans awaiting proper storage, the refrigeration
equipment was broken, and within the cold rooms disorganization reigned.
According to Gutie´rrez, ‘‘No true inventory existed and staff members had to
spend sometimes as much as a week trying to locate the seed they wished.’’20
19 A detailed account of the collecting program is K. O. Rachie, Report on the Systematic Collection of
Sorghums, Millets and Maize in India, RF RG 6.7, Series IV.5, Box 81, Folder 524 (quotation on 27).
20 Gutie´rrez G. to Finlay, 10 May 1976, RF RG 1.3, Series 103D, Box 18, Folder 115.
Collecting, therefore, was only the beginning—and in some sense, the
comparatively easy beginning—of a much more arduous task.
Though the collections may not have been as perfect as their originators would
have wished them to be, and the task of maintenance an ongoing challenge, in the
1960s the international agricultural research institutes (CIMMYT and IRRI) and the
agricultural program in India had some of the most comprehensive collections of
varietal diversity in key economic crops found anywhere in world.21 The
Rockefeller Foundation, as patron, had played a central role in bringing these into
4 An international gene bank and the World Germplasm Project
While programs supported by the Rockefeller Foundation were accumulating
massive numbers of varieties of select crops for the primary (though not exclusive)
use of agricultural researchers affiliated with these programs, a growing number of
breeders, botanists, and other biologists had begun to make calls for more, and more
extensive, such collections. The 1960s saw increasing agitation for international
efforts to gather and protect in perpetuity the vast genetic diversity in agricultural
plants—and not just a few key crops but a wide range of species important to human
social and economic activities. These calls prompted Rockefeller Foundation staff
to develop, for the first time, an overarching vision for the foundation’s role in
stewarding collections of crop varieties and to articulate a position on this newly
international and now more strongly conservation-oriented issue.
What was behind this heightened concern for crop diversity? One short answer is
the work of the international agricultural research institutes and other development
initiatives. By encouraging farmers to transition to high-yielding varieties as part of
a larger package of agricultural change, programs such as the those of the
Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico and India and institutions like CIMMYT and
IRRI were seen as having expedited a transition away from the use of genetically
diverse landraces that agriculturists had noted and worried about since the
latenineteenth century. For some observers, these worries were further stimulated by a
more general concern about ecological change; as a Dutch agricultural official
described in 1973, ‘‘This is not only a matter of agriculture and developing countries
but also a matter of… the concern of so many people today with our
Of those organizations that responded to concern about the loss of genetic
diversity in crop plants, two of the most important were FAO and an international
research initiative called the International Biological Programme (IBP). It was
members of an IBP committee who first produced a categorization of threatened
‘‘genetic resources’’ and indicated priorities for conservation within these. Hoping
to transform their assessment into action, at least in the realm of agriculture, IBP
21 Most comparable collections up to this time were the product of national and imperial programs; see
Flitner (2003) and Saraiva (2013) for examples.
22 Enclosure in Graves to Pino, 21 August 1973, RF RG 1.3, Series 103D, Box 16, Folder 103.
members reached out to FAO (Frankel and Bennett 1970a, preface; Pistorius 1997,
ch. 1–2). Founded in October 1945 as a permanent UN agency in the domain of food
and agriculture, FAO had played a role in the coordination of plant exploration and
the creation of global catalogues of varieties of major food crops since the late
1940s. The joint efforts of the IBP and FAO led to a 1967 FAO/IBP Technical
Conference on the Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic
Resources, the aims of which were to chart conservation concerns related to ‘‘plant
genetic resources,’’ survey current activities, and create a plan of action for the
future (Frankel and Bennett 1970a; Pistorius 1997, ch. 2).
The plan elaborated at the 1967 conference was focused on stemming the
perceived tide of losses. The first step would be to produce a survey of ‘‘genetic
resources in the field’’—that is, an assessment of the location and extent of
‘‘primitive material’’ (landraces) and the wild relatives of crops (also considered
useful as potential breeding material). This global survey, coordinated through a
central agency, would in turn serve as a guide for collecting the plants identified.
Another survey would chart existing collections at institutions throughout the world.
All of these genetic resources would then be classified, evaluated, documented, and
conserved for the long term. The key recommendation of the 1967 conference was
the creation or designation of ‘‘international seed storage facilities,’’ in particular an
‘‘international gene bank… available to all nations.’’ Finally, bringing all of these
linked elements together would necessitate high-level coordination and oversight.
Having agreed that this ‘‘can only come from [a] United Nations agency,’’ the
summary indicated that FAO and its Unit on Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources
and Genetic Resources Information Centre would be the obvious choice (Frankel
and Bennett 1970b, pp. 13–17).
Although FAO may have seemed the logical institution to nominate as
coordinating body for these activities, its status as a UN agency and mandate to
improve food and agricultural production worldwide did not translate into clear
international authority and effectiveness. The early ambitions for FAO to address
world hunger through direct measures such as the reorganization of commodity
markets, emergency food relief, and credit schemes to foster agricultural
development were forestalled especially by British and US policymakers. US officials in
particular wanted to promote free markets and, in the midst of the Cold War, retain
the use of food aid as means of influencing leaders of developing nations and
fostering goodwill abroad. As a result, FAO never received the funding or powers it
needed to tackle hunger head-on, and its role in its early decades was limited largely
to offering technical assistance and compiling statistics (Marchisio and Di Blase
1991; Staples 2006).
In the late 1960s, limited financial resources and authority remained a constraint
on FAO activities. Although it had increased its operational programming, its
technical assistance remained, according to one historical assessment, ‘‘modest in
comparison to other, particularly bilateral, sources’’ of such assistance (Marchisio
and Di Blase 1991, p. 61). Perhaps equally troublesome for the proposals of the
1967 conference, these years represented a period of transition at FAO. A
multifaceted campaign against hunger begun in the early 1960s was curtailed in
favor of a narrower focus on scientific and technical assistance and, under new
leadership, FAO restructured both its internal organization and its programming
priorities (Marchisio and Di Blase 1991, pp. 72–73; Staples 2006, p. 121). In the
midst of these changes, the ambitious conservation agenda articulated at the FAO/
IBP Technical Conference and envisioned as a task for FAO remained on paper,
even as interest in the issue of plant genetic resources continued to mount in both
national and international circles.
Confronted by this growing international concern, which not only emerged from
the Rockefeller Foundation’s past activities but also potentially threatened its future
work, foundation administrators moved to position themselves and their agricultural
institutes as the most knowledgeable and effective agents in managing global crop
diversity. However, they characterized this issue not as one of general conservation
action, intended foremost to prevent a cascade of losses in crop species and their
wild relatives, but rather as a targeted need to locate and make available to breeders
increasingly rare ‘‘indigenous varieties’’ of major crops.
The director of the foundation’s agricultural sciences program, Sterling
Wortman, offered a first formal assessment in March 1969. ‘‘During the past
25 years, The Rockefeller Foundation has contributed to science and to world
agriculture by assisting in the collection, storage and evaluation of the world’s basic
food crops—corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, and the millets,’’ Wortman noted. Yet
further work remained to be done to ‘‘complete’’ collection and evaluation in these
crops ‘‘before the indigenous varieties are further displaced by newer high-yielding
types.’’ Wortman suggested that it would take two years for a group of experts to
generate a status report on existing collections worldwide, which would then serve
as a guide for gathering what diversity remained. He further indicated that the
established international agricultural institutes (e.g., CIMMYT and IRRI) would be
central hubs for these activities, organizing the collections and ensuring their
availability to ‘‘the scientists who can make best use of them.’’23
Why was such an effort required of the Rockefeller Foundation? Subsequent
summaries emphasized that the foundation’s successes had drawn on collections
of genetic diversity and that future efforts would depend on similar resources.
‘‘Results attained through the use of… genetically diverse resources have been
spectacular, particularly in rice, wheat, and maize,’’ summarized one proposal,
referring to the foundation’s programs in Latin America and Asia. ‘‘To maintain
the achieved high levels of production of these and for the improvement of other
basic food crops, we are entirely dependent on the availability of material in the
Another important reason for the foundation to develop an overarching plan for
the management of crop diversity was a widespread perception that they had played
a role in placing such resources at risk. Even if it did not come up explicitly in many
foundation reports and proposals, it always lurked between the lines. How could it
not, when one of the most common examples offered to indicate the urgency of
creating new collections was the spread of the Rockefeller-sponsored wheat and rice
varieties?25 Foundation officers were well aware of this view.26 As such, the
foundation was not just addressing an unfolding agricultural problem that it had the
experience and resources to take on. It was addressing a problem generated in part
through its own activities.
Finally, foundation officers may well have worried about other institutions
encroaching on activities (the collection and maintenance of landraces) that were
not only areas of extensive investment on the part of the foundation, but also tasks
central to the identity and importance of the agricultural research institutes.
Although Wortman and his colleagues recognized that cooperation with institutions
such as FAO would be essential in any international germplasm conservation effort,
they tellingly did not reach out to these institutions in their initial planning. Instead,
they dismissed them. The consensus of an April 1969 meeting, for example, was
that the FAO/IBP proposals had arrived at a dead end—they would ‘‘remain on
Empowered by their experiences in this field, concerned about the future viability
of their programs, cognizant of their role in imperiling genetic resources, and likely
aiming to continue as leaders in a newly crowded enterprise, those in the
Rockefeller Foundation’s agricultural sciences program forged ahead. In short
order, they nominated four expert individuals—one each for maize, rice, wheat, and
sorghum and millets—who in turn assembled a group that he and Foundation staff
considered the best qualified to collectively establish the status of existing
collections, gaps in these collections, and plans needed to ensure ‘‘continued and
improved protection’’ of global germplasm resources.28
The summary statements to emerge from these efforts converged on a few
themes. The first was that many varieties were indeed in danger of disappearing and
further collection activities should be undertaken. A second was that oversight of
collecting and maintenance should be done on a crop-specific basis and in most
cases left to the care of the established agricultural research institutes. The wheat
committee, for example, argued that CIMMYT, because of its ‘‘unique character
and role as an international center of research… would be the logical institution to
serve as the coordinator’’ for the activities recommended by the committee. Rather
than attempt to build a centralized collection, or even a centralized effort, the
committees generally agreed that each institute was best left to undertake
independently the conservation efforts that its researchers felt most desirable.29
In April 1972, the Rockefeller Foundation dedicated the comparatively modest
sum of $350,000 ‘‘toward the costs of completing the collection of the world
germplasm of corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, and millets,’’ stipulating that this was to
be used within a three-year period. The assumed recipients of this grant money were
IRRI (for work on rice), CIMMYT (for wheat and maize), an as-yet-only-proposed
International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (later ICRISAT; for
sorghum and the millets), and the Plant Introduction Research office of the USDA
(presumably for collecting missions).30
The limited plan for protecting ‘‘world germplasm’’ formulated at the
Rockefeller Foundation by 1972 was a far cry from the ambitious vision articulated at the
FAO/IBP Technical Conference a few years earlier. It aimed at creating better
collections of a handful of crops—crops that because of their economic importance
had already been the focus of Rockefeller Foundation collections and that were
arguably best represented in national and other collections—and to do so within
established institutions and without global oversight. Its central objective was to
ensure the long-term availability of precious resources to breeders. The FAO/IBP
vision on the other hand was not limited to the core commodity crops of global
agriculture but instead articulated a need for widespread conservation action, and
furthermore emphasized the conservation aspects of the work over utilization. It
made a strong case for the creation of new institutions, including regional seed
banks and an international coordinating body. Finally, while the FAO/IBP proposal
aimed at the development of an on-going effort, with permanent institutional
support and activities projected for the indefinite future, foundation officers
preferred to think that they were closing the door on this issue. Wortman described
the World Germplasm Project as ‘‘the systematic completion of the collection of the
5 CGIAR and the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources
Although Rockefeller Foundation administrators expressed skepticism about the
ability of FAO and IBP to follow through on the ambitious scheme articulated at the
FAO/IBP Technical Conference, the promoters of that scheme had not lost hope. In
1971 they laid their call for an internationally coordinated effort to conserve
genetically diverse crops at the feet of a newly organized international body, the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), describing it
as a concern that threatened the entire future of agricultural development. From
1971 until 1973, members of CGIAR, an organization whose mandate was to
coordinate international aid for agricultural research in developing countries,
grappled with the challenge of addressing this complex global conservation concern.
The origins of CGIAR, much like the rising concern about ‘‘germplasm
resources,’’ lie in the Rockefeller Foundation’s escalating activities in the area of
agricultural assistance. In the 1960s, the costs to the foundation (as well as its
partner, the Ford Foundation) of operating the international agricultural research
institutes—which by 1967 included CIMMYT, IRRI, the International Center for
Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture
(IITA)—escalated rapidly. Although the foundations wished to see these continue,
they did not envision themselves as permanent financial backers. By 1969 they had
initiated talks with various governments and international organizations, seeking
relief from the enormous financial obligations the institutes entailed. These
negotiations resulted in the 1971 formation of CGIAR, the purpose of which was to
coordinate research activities that addressed the agricultural needs of developing
countries. It worked primarily by directing funds from donors to the existing
agricultural institutes, creating new institutes organized on the same basic model,
and coordinating research efforts among all of these (CGIAR Secretariat 1971;
Baum and Lejeune 1986).
From the outset, it was clear that the high-level officials who gathered as CGIAR
at regular meetings would need a source of scientific and technical advice in order to
effectively coordinate research at an international level. Its members therefore
decided that CGIAR would have its own Technical Advisory Committee (TAC),
comprising twelve scientists with expertise in agriculture and development. It was
through this committee that the creation of a coordinated system to conserve crop
plant diversity was presented to CGIAR as a pressing need for international
From the outset, the most hotly contested element of proposed genetic
conservation activities was the role that would be given to FAO. The initial plan
brought to the TAC in 1971 by staff of the Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources
Unit of FAO called for the creation of eleven ‘‘genetic resources centres’’ to collect
and maintain crop varieties and a coordinating body that would be ‘‘planned and
supervised by internationally recognized experts,’’ staffed with trained personnel,
and provided access to ‘‘crop specialists’’ to act as advisers. FAO estimated the
initial five-year cost of $5 to $6.5 million to support eight or nine centers for a
fiveyear period. It identified no new costs associated with the coordinating body—
presumably because it envisioned that the existing FAO Unit would assume them.
This latter assumption raised immediate objections (FAO 1971). As Otto Frankel, a
central figure in the 1967 FAO/IBP Technical Conference and chair of an FAO
‘‘Panel of Experts’’ on plant exploration and conservation, described: ‘‘The FAO
Unit concerned with genetic resources… has a staff of three professional people
who are overworked and would be wholly inadequate… They have not achieved—
indeed, barely attempted—the much easier task of coordinating the work of those
existing institutions which could now act as such a network.’’32
Other CGIAR members shared Frankel’s concern about FAO’s presumed
leadership, especially representatives of the Rockefeller Foundation. As one
foundation officer summarized, ‘‘Essentially the main points of difficulty arise from
the fact that FAO would presume to bring under its control the coordinating body,
and there are serious reservations about the ability of FAO to develop the strategies
for a comprehensive germplasm program.’’ Although FAO, by virtue of its
particular mandate, seemed to him a logical institution to take on international
coordination, he felt that ‘‘nevertheless, FAO’s history in bureaucratic procedures
and program execution leaves something to be desired.’’33 (His assessment of course
left aside the question of whether FAO had ever had the resources it needed to
effectively carry out programming.) He and other administrators were quick to point
out who did have such experience: the Rockefeller Foundation. Through its World
Germplasm Project, the foundation had begun to coordinate efforts among
international institutions—albeit those to which it was already closely
connected—in order to gather and preserve crop diversity. Foundation officers felt that
these activities had not been adequately taken into account in discussions about the
formation of a new genetic resources network.34
In addition to questioning FAO’s overall capacity for program management,
Rockefeller Foundation administrators raised concerns about its comparative
weakness in more specialized areas of expertise. These included in particular the
technical enterprises of collecting and maintaining seed stocks. To representatives
of the foundation, the creation of new genetic resources centers under FAO
oversight would take control out of the hands of those with the most relevant
experience. In Wortman’s estimation, ‘‘Clearly, only international research centers
[e.g., CIMMYT, IRRI] can really implement plans, including collection, evaluation,
description, and maintenance… FAO can and would cooperate, but its officers
generally would agree that action should rest with institutes, with FAO handling
pub[licity]… descriptions, promotion of use of the resources, and arrangements for
[international] cooperation in the evaluation of materials.’’35
In summer 1973, after a number of TAC subcommittee meetings and several
iterations of proposals, a revised plan came from FAO to CGIAR for its consideration.
Surprisingly, given the tenor of the meetings and negotiations that preceded it, this
proposal placed even greater control in the hands of FAO, emphasized the limitations of
the existing agricultural institutes, and replaced a previously planned independent
advisory panel of scientists with the FAO Panel of Experts. Unsurprisingly, Rockefeller
Foundation representatives stridently objected. Once again they couched their
objections in terms of their previous experience. ‘‘It seems to us that this is a scientific
undertaking which must be controlled at all times… by the very best scientific
judgment,’’ Wortman began. ‘‘Once the funds [for collecting] become available, we find
literally thousands of collections coming in… One can be dealing with a bottomless pit
of collection if we do not have careful scientific control.’’36 The implication was that
FAO, a political organization, would not be in a position to manage competing demands
for collection from varied national and regional entities. By comparison the agricultural
institutes, with their in-house scientific expertise and their prior experience in managing
the ‘‘thousands of collections’’ rolling in, would be far better positioned.
In the wake of the 1973 proposal and ensuing discussions, a subcommittee of
CGIAR finally generated terms of reference and an operational plan for an
International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) that would be accepted by
CGIAR. At the first meeting of this subcommittee, Lewis Roberts, associate director
of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Agricultural Sciences program, propounded the
views of the foundation. He argued first that the focus of any effort should be ‘‘the
relatively few crops that supply man with most of his food’’ primarily on the
grounds of cost, especially the cost of maintaining, evaluating, and sharing stocks.
‘‘A very sharp focus of a global genetic resources program will be required in order
to keep it from becoming so broad and unwieldy that it cannot be adequately
financed or managed to ensure its success.’’ His second major bid was for a
governing board ‘‘with a high degree of autonomy,’’ which he thought was not
ensured in the proposal of an expanded FAO unit operating in conjunction with its
own Panel of Experts.37 According to Roberts’s account of the meeting, his proposal
won favor over one advanced by FAO representatives. Roberts was subsequently
asked to form a small sub-subcommittee together with members from UK and West
Germany (and, notably, no one from FAO) to draft the terms of reference and plan
of operation for the envisioned governing board.38
Although FAO had announced its intention of expanding its Crop Ecology and
Genetic Resources Unit so as to be able to coordinate international conservation efforts,
its central role in the finalized terms of reference was to provide a secretariat and
maintain a trust fund for an independent board of experts who would be answerable
primarily to CGIAR and its TAC. The activities of the IBPGR were described as giving
priority to ‘‘species of major economic importance and their wild and cultivated
relatives.’’39 In this work, its chief collaborators would be the established international
agricultural research institutes and several new institutions just then coming on line
under the auspices of CGIAR, which would be tasked with maintaining the core world
collections of key economic crops such as maize, wheat, and rice. In other words, a
narrow vision that supported established approaches to and institutions for agricultural
development displaced the more encompassing FAO (and earlier IBP/FAO) vision of
advancing food security through the conservation of a broad range of crops and the
distribution of this work and the resources necessary to support it to a range of national
and international actors. This outcome reflected a broader pattern that historians have
identified at FAO that began in the late 1960s and became more apparent through early
1970s, in which ‘‘the FAO lost its leadership on the issue of agricultural development’’
(Staples 2006, p. 121; see also Marchisio and Di Blase 1991).
The proposal hammered out by Roberts and others on the sub-committee was one
that the Rockefeller Foundation was happy to support. It provided initial funds that
would be used (alongside larger donations from West Germany, Sweden,
Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) to get the new IBPGR up and running. In
addition, Roberts—in spite of his concern in January 1974 that FAO was trying ‘‘to
move in and take over major control of the Board’’ by orchestrating the creation of a
list of candidate members of IBPGR—was invited to be among the initial twelve
members, assuring the foundation a voice in all of its early proceedings.40
37 Roberts, ‘‘The Collection, Preservation and Evaluation of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources,’’ 17
September 1973, RF RG 1.3, Subseries 103D, Box 16, Folder 103.
38 Roberts, memo [on meeting of Sub-Committee on Genetic Resources], n.d., RF, RG 1.3, Subseries
103D, Box 16, Folder 104.
39 IBPGR, ‘‘Terms of Reference and Operational Rules and Procedures of the International Board for
Plant Genetic Resources,’’ 1974, RF, RG 1.3, Subseries 103D, Box 20, Folder 127.
40 Roberts, 7 January 1974, RF RG 12, Lewis Roberts Officer Diary, Box 413, File 1974.
Accounts by other scholars have ably demonstrated how the Rockefeller
Foundation’s interventions in international agriculture were shaped by its administrators’
and personnel’s assessments of the kinds of farmers and modes of agricultural
production they encountered (or imagined) in the developing world. Here I have
traced instead the crucial role played by the foundation’s growing sense of its own
central position in global agricultural development—and belief in its great skill in
producing desirable outcomes—in shaping its activities. This, too, is an essential
element to consider in understanding the history of its agricultural work in the later
The Rockefeller Foundation’s gradually expanding ambitions, from immediate
local concerns to projected global needs, is evident in the trajectory of its
involvement in seed collection and conservation. The foundation’s role in
maintaining genetic stocks began as a small-scale enterprise in the 1940s, with
staff in Mexico making collections of the crops they were tasked with improving for
Mexican farmers. Around 1950 this initial maize collection began a slow
transformation from being a working collection of Mexican maize varieties
intended for use in the creation of better Mexican crops in the near future, to being
the central repository for a global maize collection whose projected uses included
maize breeders from around the world and especially the far future. And the
Foundation did not stop at overseeing the world’s maize diversity. Where the staff
of the Mexican program had begun maize collections without an initial vision for
their ultimate extent, staff of newer crop improvement programs incorporated
systematic collecting of regional and global diversity from the outset. In the late
1960s, longstanding concerns about the loss of genetic diversity began to be
expressed with much greater urgency by many biologists and breeders. Confronting
proposals for new international institutions and oversight to address this issue,
Rockefeller Foundation officers presented the foundation as already well positioned
to ‘‘complete’’ collections of genetic diversity in all the major economic crop plants
and advanced the agricultural institutions they had founded as the ideal permanent
international repositories for these collections. Here they had challengers, namely,
FAO, which advanced itself as the organization best positioned to coordinate the
international management of crop genetic resources. In the debates that followed,
Rockefeller Foundation officers effectively positioned themselves and the
institutions founded and funded by the foundation as better equipped than FAO, the
designated UN body for agricultural concerns, to understand and take responsibility
for the long-term (indeed, indefinite) maintenance of resources essential for
international agricultural production.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s ever-expanding engagement with the genetic
diversity of crop plants was not only a product of its officers’ growing sense of their
own centrality in global agricultural production, present and future. It was also
linked to a belief in the success of their own programs. Time and again they held up
the work of their own employees and institutes as exemplars of collection and
management of genetic material, even when they knew well that the established
collections were vulnerable to disorder and decay.
The foundation’s faith in the success of its own programs can also be read into
the shared belief of its administrators that they had so fundamentally transformed
agricultural production that there was no hope for survival of genetically diverse
varieties. This was a belief that was apparently shared among the agricultural
research institutes as well, even as they became increasingly distinct from the
foundation. As a document produced by a CIMMYT staff member in 1972
described, ‘‘CIMMYT, as one of the main architects of the so called ‘Green
Revolution,’ has been responsible more than any other organization during the past
five years for the displacement of local varieties and primitive cultivars of wheat
and maize from their natural regions of cultivation and their replacement with
higher yielding exotic varieties.’’41 Rockefeller Foundation staff were not
embarrassed by their institutions’ implication in this perceived destruction of genetic
resources and the risks to future agricultural production thought to be attendant upon
it, but rather saw it as part of their established record of success. It was simply
another reason for entrusting the future of the global diversity of crop plants to the
foundation and the organizations it had played a central role in creating.
Acknowledgements Research for this article was supported in part by a grant-in-aid from the
Rockefeller Archive Center; I am deeply grateful to the RAC and its staff for their assistance. I also wish
to thank Robert Meunier, Ka¨rin Nickelsen, and Staffan Mu¨ller-Wille for their editorial comments and
advice, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
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author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
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